The federal government’s newly-unveiled budget has put a strong focus on COVID-19 pandemic recovery, with particular attention on the financial strain of child care.
The largest chunk of spending in the spring budget is going towards a national child care program. It’s something that’s been discussed for decades and the federal government is proposing $30 billion over the next five years for the initiative.
Specifically, government is aiming to bring down the cost of regulated child care to an average of $10 per day within the next five years.
By 2022, the goal is to cut child care costs in half.
Ottawa also plans to boost wages for early child care educators and create more spaces.
Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin told reporters Monday evening he was pleased with what he saw in the budget and that there was a “lot of alignment in my priorities.”
He estimated Ottawa’s boost to child care would equate to around $100 million per year for the province — something he said was “very substantial.”
“I’ve asked the Department of Education to see how we can leverage on that opportunity to building on our pre-primary program and look at what our opportunities are,” he said.
As for the federal government’s goal of bringing in $10-per-day child care, he says that’s something the province will have to calculate.
“That’s a lofty goal but if we can sign an agreement to make that happen, I’d be very pleased to make that happen,” he said.
Christine McLean, an assistant professor at Mount Saint Vincent University’s child and youth study program in Halifax, says she’s happy to see the federal budget prioritize affordable child care and better wages for educators.
“It’s very exciting but we’ve been down this road before too. I’ve been part of the child care community for over 30 years and there’s been promises along the way in terms of multilateral agreements, bilateral agreements,” she said.
“So we’re hopeful, but cautiously hopeful.”
McLean says she believes the pandemic has brought the issue of child care into the forefront. Specifically, people who had to work from home but didn’t have child care discovered how difficult it is. As well, essential workers who had to work during the pandemic were left scrambling for child care.
She says Nova Scotia currently has registered child care spaces for fewer than 30 per cent of children who require it, and that spots cost about $36 to $40 per day for each child.
“So when you think about somebody that has two children, that’s quite a significant expense for a family,” she said.
She adds there aren’t enough qualified early childhood educators and that wages, which are about $15 to $19 an hour depending on qualifications, is insufficient. That often leads to high turnover in the industry.
“The province, it’s been doing pretty well with what it has but it isn’t a sustainable system,” she said.
McLean points out the lack of affordable child care disproportionately affects women, who may find themselves struggling to decide whether to join the workforce or not.
“That has a tremendous effect on how much money, how much income taxes is coming into the system, provincial income tax, federal income tax. Just the buying power of families to keep economies going, being able to afford housing, being able to afford necessities of life,” she said.
“It has a tremendous impact not just on individual families but the communities as well.”
Premiers still want to see increase in health transfers
While child care goals were lauded by Nova Scotia’s premier, Rankin says he’s dismayed by the lack of boost to health transfers.
Rankin says while he saw some targeted funding for health, the budget does not have long-term increases to the transfers.
“That will be a continued ask from all premiers, which I support,” he said.
New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs echoed that criticism, and didn’t mince words about the Liberal budget.
“It seems to be the only revenue that’s coming in from anywhere are taxpayers. So it’s a huge spending budget, which we all see. It’s clearly an election budget and I would say focused on the Toronto and metropolitan area,” he said.
“When you just go across the spectrum, not one mention of health care, not one mention of what every premier and every territory leader were asking for: stability in the health care system that is in crisis now because of COVID but it’s COVID that demonstrated its weaknesses throughout this pandemic.”
He went on to say this was a “chicken in every pot” budget that aimed to please as many people as possible before a potential election, without delivering on what he says should be a priority: health care transfers and vaccines.
He points to the fact provincial leaders have been asking repeatedly to increase the Canada Health Transfer from 22 to 35 per cent.
“We’ll look back on this and we’ll say, ‘We knew health care was in crisis.’ Every territory leader and provincial leader knew this and yet it was completely ignored in the most expensive budget in the history of our country,” he said.
As for Ottawa’s child care plan, he was also critical of how the federal government wanted to go about it.
“They’re committing every province to be a 50 per cent participant before they’ve ever had any discussions of any kind,” he explained.
Budget looks to help businesses
The local business community is feeling hopeful about the budget, however.
The Atlantic director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says extending the wage subsidy and rent subsidy were on their wish list.
“Those programs have been extremely helpful for many many businesses across Atlantic Canada. At this point in time, there are tweaks to that need to be brought to the programs,” said Louis-Philippe Gauthier.
But while Ottawa answered the call for a hiring subsidy, Higgs was worried about the impact of that move.
“As far as what we’re seeing in terms of businesses in our province that need to get people back to work, it does just the opposite,” Higgs said.
“It is basically enhancing the EI benefits and encouraging a system where people don’t have to work.”
— With files from Alicia Draus and Callum Smith